Why the winds of change may power Minnesota now

By John Horchner

Let me begin with one more story about my time in Pittsburgh.

This would be 2009, the same year Pittsburgh hosted the G20 summit, a big deal for any city, but epic for a city the size of Pittsburgh.

In his closing remarks for the gathering, President Barack Obama said of Pittsburgh, “It serves as a model for turning the page to a 21st-century economy, and a reminder that the key to our future prosperity lies not just in New York or Los Angeles or Washington — but in places like Pittsburgh.”

Prior to this, Obama heralded Pittsburgh as a center of “green technology” and, at the time, there was much to be excited about. Pittsburgh was on a tear, retrofitting old buildings, and became seventh in the nation in its number of LEED certified buildings. The state of Pennsylvania was supporting solar energy, and the installation of solar panels was at an all-time high.

Pittsburgh would lead the world out of climate change.

I’d taken a class in residential energy efficiency and started a website for the field in Pennsylvania, aptly called EfficiencyPA.

Sitting at a glass desk on the 11th floor in a shared office space in downtown Pittsburgh with my part-time editor, I wondered what was next. I asked her if I should make a follow-up call to President Obama. I say this not to brag, but as an individual who was desperate, not knowing the direction we’d take without any actual energy-saving programs to promote.

““What do you have to lose?”” she asked. I dialed the number.

““I’d like to speak to the president,”” I said. My associate listened in, a slight smirk on her face.

I was switched over. Someone answered. She said she worked with the president. ““May I ask who is calling?””

I told her I’d developed a website for energy efficiency in the state of Pennsylvania and was wondering when all the programs they were talking about were going to get started.

She asked me what city I was calling from. I said the magic word, ““Pittsburgh”,” and added how Obama had made several trips to the city. She said someone would get back to me.

Someone from the Department of Energy (DOE) did get back to me, and after some back and forth, it was decided that we could be part of a beta test of new software they were supporting called the Home Energy Score. I would put the results of the test on our website.

I was invited to the White House to hear then Vice President Joe Biden present a plan for middle class jobs that included the Home Energy Score. Before going, I called a friend who covered many press events for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time. His only advice: “Don’t take any silverware home.”

As I made my way into the White House and down the green carpeted hallway, I noticed the beautiful side tables placed between beautiful oil paintings depicting our nation’s past. I stopped to run my hand across the top of one of them.

The hallway opened up into an auditorium, and there was a slight buzz in the room, knowing that Biden could walk in at any time.

My impression was that Biden was tall. He was broad-shouldered. He had a presence. He was speaking then, as he is now, about the plight of the middle class and a plan to fix the economy by creating good, middle-class jobs. It felt like he was one of us, a roomful of energy efficiency program managers and contractors.

After the presentation, I went out to lunch with a cohort of home energy industry professionals, including a representative from the Center for Energy and Environment (think Home Energy Squad) based in Minneapolis. They would be running their own tests of the Home Energy Score.

For our part, I decided on a contest where people could show off their home energy projects. I added 35 contractors to the website. The prize wasn’t a million dollars. In fact, there was no prize, just bragging rights. The local public radio station supported the effort and made a few announcements.

The DOE used one of their contractors to do the home inspections and run the scoring software.

One of the people we scored was a contractor I’d listed on our website. His home scored in the lower half on the chart, a dismal number for him. It was only because his house was powered by 100% electric energy. This version of the software penalized his score because utilities in the Pittsburgh area used coal-burning power plants for electricity’s power source. He didn’t understand why he should be penalized for decisions made elsewhere.

What he didn’t understand, what even Obama and Biden didn’t fully understand, is that despite good intentions, there are those who still believe in coal. Utilities and power companies have assets based on coal, and especially in Pittsburgh, they had no intention of shutting down without a fight.

Of course, that may have been only a small part of the reason that the federal residential energy efficiency programs I was hoping for were put on hold. But it does explain why the Clean Power Plan, which would have been a huge win for Pittsburgh and everyone’s need for cleaner air there, was also put on hold.

Instead, three of the top ten polluters in the area continued to burn coal to supply electric utilities. Since then, two of these companies have been sued for running their equipment without the necessary pollution controls. One of them sat on the edge of the city and just recently closed down in 2022.

Fortunately, St. Paul is not Pittsburgh and Xcel Energy was one of the utilities that filed a brief in favor of the Clean Power Plan, not against it.

Still, we know investor-owned utilities will base their decisions on market signals.

Brian Ross, vice president of Renewable Energy at the Great Plains Institute in Minneapolis who has been working on climate action and sustainability projects across the Midwest for years, said that now may be the right time to move on renewables. He told me that “at some point, it becomes in the utilities’ best interest to adopt renewables…when it’s cheaper to build and operate a new wind farm than to operate a coal power plant.”

Ross said that of late “the economic winds are at our back rather than in our face, and we have opportunities to keep moving even if there are people undermining policy.”

In regards to policy, Aaron Klemz, Chief Strategy Officer for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, told me that “It will not be a one-time battle.” To meet the new Carbon Free Standard (CFS) law that was passed in Minnesota in February and mandates 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040, “it will be 20 years to zero emissions.”

Should people prepare for these changes? Is it for real this time?

Joel Haskard, co-director of Clean Energy Resource Teams, is helping businesses, industries and consumers in Minnesota take advantage of the government’s programs. He responded to my question by email:

““The $370 billion Inflation Reduction Act bill is historic in how it is going to transform U.S. manufacturing in the clean energy industry. There are going to be a lot of jobs created all over the country.

“But for homeowners, what you need to know is that 2023 is a great year to be planning energy projects and upgrades for 2024 when these rebates and tax credits (along with recently-passed clean energy incentives in the Minnesota legislature) come into effect.””

Let’s hope this time he’s right.

John Horchner is a professional writer who lives in St. Anthony Park.

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